How do you play music? It’s a simple question with a complex answer. Kristan Caryl spoke to DJs including Nick Höppner, Bill Brewster, Hannah Holland and The Black Madonna to find out which records they value most and which they save for special occasions.
How do you play and listen to music? It’s almost certainly different to how your friends operate, and different again to a club resident or a touring DJ. Many music fans will know that they go through stages: one month all they want to do is stockpile darkened dub, but as soon as the sun comes out they’re all about string-laced disco. And what of your favourite tracks and albums? Do you play them ad infinitum, or do you prefer to listen to them sparingly so they don’t lose their impact?
We tracked down a range of DJs from different backgrounds to ask them about all this and more. We wanted to know if they hold certain records back, cherish some more than others or have rules about only reaching for their favourites for the most deserving dance floors. Is there such a thing as the perfect beat, a track that works every single time? It turns out everyone thinks differently: some are precious, some certainly are not, but each one acknowledges that a good record is not always a good record, and that in fact, context is king.
The former Ostgut Ton label manager is still a big presence at Berlin’s Panorama Bar, has mixed it up for the club’s official CD series and last year released a club ready full length, Folk.
I try to provide what I subjectively perceive as missing on dancefloors and still stay true to the stuff I like.
I have quite a few older, personal and eternal favourite records, but I would also say that I go through certain phases rather quickly. I am also always open to the current zeitgeist. There are a lot of factors determining what I like to DJ, actually. Some are a bit stupid – I try to stay away from what’s super popular as much as possible, even though I might like the tracks in question. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule, but very often I just don’t see any reason to drop that hot record for the umpteenth time. In that same vein, I define myself in contrast to what I perceive as the dominant sounds and records of the moment by not playing too many of those styles. I try to provide what I subjectively perceive as missing on dancefloors and still stay true to the stuff I like.
On a more positive note, I think my general approach to DJing is quite eclectic. I just don’t like to play the same kind of music or cater for just one vibe in my DJ sets. In order to buy a record I need to be inspired by it in any way, not just from a DJ’s point of view. I’d say at least half of the records I buy I don’t play out, because they are a bit too weird or too deep, or just not functional at all. I still buy them because I heard something in them and I know there will come a time when I can make it work in front of a crowd.
I am not a snob DJ. I play what I like and I’m happy to share what I play with anyone asking unless they’re taking the piss by asking for half of my set or more. Having said that, I am saving a lot of hits or records that might fall in the cheesy category for New Year at Panorama Bar. That night just provides the perfect setting for playing records you usually don’t get away with easily. An example is Danny Tenaglia vs. Giorgio Moroder – ‘From Here To Eternity’, which basically is a super proggy big-room version of ‘The Chase’. It’s a great record, I think, but only works for special occasions in my opinion. But generally I’m not really holding back records. I’m trying to play the right records for the right occasion. Of course that means I don’t play certain records because they just wouldn’t fit at all.
the deepest records would work really well at Plastic People, but you wouldn't touch those records on a festival stage at peak time
According to the size of a club, there are also ‘small’ and ‘big’ records. In a small place like Plastic People in London for example, the deepest records would work really well, because the sound system was amazing and the vibe very intimate. But you wouldn’t touch those records on a festival stage at peak time in front of 5,000 or more people.
One record I used to play at the old Panorama Bar and afterwards only at the new one is The Rapture’s ‘House Of Jealous Lovers’. It completely tore the roof off a few New Year’s Eves ago – it’s just one of those special occasion records for me. The Same goes for ‘Let’s Get Sick’ by Mu.
Strictly speaking every record has entered and left my bag again. But the one that spent the most time in there is probably Rob Mello’s No Ears Dub of Freaks’ ‘Discorobot’ on Music For Freaks. Anyone who heard me DJing in the last few months will most probably have heard it, because I was just playing it a lot again. It’s techy, it’s super groovy, it’s got humour, it’s a little freaky. And it always works.
I fell for the hype a little bit, bought a lot of those recent noisy, lo-fi outsider house records, but whenever I played one of those records it never worked.
Eventually, almost every record wears out. A lot of them don’t stick too much anyway, to be honest. I don’t have that many tunes I want to play over and over again but with those I really don’t feel any shame. But I’m getting better at sticking to records I like. A few years ago, I kind of had a silly policy of not playing records for more than two months. If I really like a record today, I play it out a lot longer.
I always wanted to play some drum and bass at the end of my sets, but never dared to, but for my album release party in march I finally dropped the Roni Size remix of Nuyorican Soul’s ‘It’s Alright’ and I think the crowd and myself really had a moment with this. What I was pretty disappointed with were a lot of those recent noisy, lo-fi outsider house records. I fell for the hype a little bit, bought a lot of that stuff, but whenever I played one of those records it never worked. I’m not really blaming it on the records, because I guess I played them for the wrong reasons and probably wasn’t able to ‘sell’ them to the crowd.
I always try to think of certain situations when making music, but I never can, because in the end, DJing and producing are two completely different things for me. DJing is a two-way engagement with the crowd in real time; it is direct communication. In the studio, I’m only talking to myself and the process happens over a longer period of time and also is a lot more deliberate. On the other hand, my producing music is a lot more open to accidents than my DJing is.